In the previous parts of this three-part series, I explained how hypervigilance develops and the ways it can be useful, as well as how it can let both partners in a relationship down in substantive ways. For the third and final part of this series, I’ll explore how both individuals and partners can work with hypervigilance in a way that’s additive, rather than threatening, to their relationship:
Hypervigilant Individuals Can Benefit From Examining Safety And Danger, As Well As Who They Can Trust
In my practice, working with hypervigilance is largely about slowing individuals down and helping them newly examine safety and danger. This includes validating the very real elements of danger, and separating them from catastrophic consequences or imagined outcomes that are more based on past traumatic experiences than present reality. Therapy helps individuals become aware of the unsafety still present in their adult lives, as well as helps them reshape their choices to orient toward safety and away from danger.
It also helps folks appraise the trust that exists in their current relationships. Sometimes my patients have supportive partners, friends, and family members upon whom they can rely. Other times, though, they find themselves in, or have cultivated, relationships that may not be safe, including with their parents, and may have appropriately hesitated to trust them. Almost always, it’s not so black and white. However, I work with my patients to assess trustworthiness, learn to build trust, and expand their tolerance for the risk that comes with it.
Giving Validation About Being Right And Having An Honest Dialogue About Fear–And How It Manifests–Can Help Create A Strong Relationship Dynamic
In the couples context, it’s important that a hypervigilant partner gets validation for being right about COVID-19 with an understanding from both that this is not an all-or-nothing context. The hypervigilant partner is not a crystal ball, and though he or she was accurate about some ramifications, that still doesn’t mean he or she gets to corner the market on decision making or perspectives. Often, partners who have felt shamed or hurt need their experiences to be seen and recognized as well. We often use couples therapy to examine validation within the relationship: when it is being withheld, when it is being offered generously, and why.
In addition to helping hypervigilant individuals tolerate risk, increase trust, and relinquish total control, I encourage partners to play a role in healing too–relating to the hypervigilant behavior as an understandable, often mutually beneficial, and crucial part of an individual’s past survival. Partners can be helpful contributors, rather than opponents. They can offer insights from their own childhood experiences related to safety and danger, and how that might be expressed in adulthood. They can also do their part to initiate conversations around planning ahead, anticipate potential risks–making sure you have enough masks and disposable gloves, planning to go to the store during an off-hour without too many people, considering financial savings rather than high-risk investments right now, etc.–and be generous with their understanding that they carry some privilege around feeling safe in the world.
Above all, understanding that fear is often a subjective experience, and holding the belief that there is not a right or wrong way to have fear will increase curiosity and curb shaming different perspectives. If partners can create a generous, validating, and honest dialogue about fear, they can use each other’s perspectives to strengthen the relationship and work as a team. The hypervigilant partner might be able to point out some risks that nobody saw coming (super helpful when living during COVID-19!), while his or her partner might be able to provide assurance around a scenario that will likely turn out okay, even if a little off-book, or offer support and togetherness, even in the face of uncertainty.